Luis Nani on Early Life in Lisbon, United Memories & MLS Dreams…

Photography: Jack Bridgland / Styling: Sophie Casha / Interview & Words: Tom Everest

There’s a side to footballers you don’t often see. A Champions League-winning winger trying to tap back into their adopted Mancunian accent is usually an aspect of their personality that remains hidden. So, is watching them singing and dancing to a mix of UK and European hip hop. Not to mention, them being completely open and honest about their life both on and off the pitch. However, we discovered all three when we paid a visit to Lisbon to see where it all began for Luis Nani. 

“This city gave me courage, it gave me a limitless mindset,” explains Luis Nani, the stand-in captain of Portugal’s European Championship triumph in 2016, who finds himself back in Lisbon – the city he calls home – as he prepares for the start of the new MLS campaign with Orlando City SC in March. He’s incredibly open, witty, in fact. But he talks with an intensity, a steely determination, which was built into him from his formative years living on the outskirts of the Portuguese capital. “Playing football in the street with your friends, so many years ago in Lisbon, was not easy,” he chuckles. “You had to show your courage to play with older guys, to play with bad guys. Guys who were stronger than you, guys who weren’t very good at football but very intimidating. If you beat him at football then they will beat you up off the pitch. This was life,” he pauses. “I never turned my back. I always wanted to prove myself. It didn’t matter if the day before they slapped me or beat me, I was there everyday. Everyday I was there stronger than ever.”

Luis Nani still bears the scars of those pitches. Born in Amadora, a poverty-stricken district on the periphery of Lisbon, the 33-year-old winger sees himself as a product of his environment, but one of the luckier ones. The single pitch in the centre of the only world he knew up until the age of 14, gave him a rite of passage; a place to grow, learn and evolve. Growing up away from his parents, he had no guiding light, no real direction to go in but to visit the pitch guarded by local bullies and ballers. But, it’s a story which makes his rise into one of the world’s most enigmatic wingers all the more impressive. With four Premier League titles to his name, a Champions League crown, a Club World Cup, a European Championship and over 100 international caps for Portugal, he’s seen and done it all. Not that he’s done just yet.

This is the story of how Luis Nani fought his way to the top; on the strength of his own dreams and desire – and his plans for American glory with Orlando City SC.

Let’s start with being back in Lisbon. What does this place mean to you?

For me, as a son of this country and this city, I love it. I love it because this was my childhood. All of my successes happened because of here – it made me who I am and it gave me the possibility to move to other countries and to reach my goals. This place started my adventure. But, times change, all of the country, all of the city has been changing. It’s a new place now. There are new buildings, new roads and the area has changed a lot. But, still a big part of what we used to appreciate the most, the 5vs5 pitch, remains a big part of the city. It is still here, which is amazing. Every year, at Christmas I go there. We try to make tournaments for the children to play in and create different events for all of the community. It’s nice. You can never beat going home. 

You mentioned the pitch, what was it like for you growing up? 

It was hard a pitch, very hard. But, for us, it was the best court ever. We fell down but we would stand up very fast. We didn’t ask for better conditions, we were just focussed on playing and having a ball. They were the best moments and the best memories I have from Lisbon; the court. It gave me a lot. Now, there are totally different kids, a new generation, but it’s the same spirit. They are now used to great conditions – they want astro turf grass – to make things a little easier. But, sometimes the hard way gets the best results.

How did that environment impact the player which you have become?

It gave me courage, it made me stronger. One guy who was good at football, and a lot older than us, always used to make a team against me and my friends. When we scored a goal he would always say ‘oh no goal, because there was a foul before,’ or when we used to win the game he would always so ‘no, we’re not finished yet because the ball was out, we must continue playing.’ We were fighting with them, arguing every day, he was always bullying us. He would say if we continued to speak he would slap us, and so he did. Bam.

We couldn’t do anything. We just had to play, play, play. Every day, we went to the field and every day we got better, every day we improved until we gained strength and bravery. From that day, we realised that we just have to believe in our qualities, believe in who we are. It was in those games when we realised that anything is possible, you can change things, you can achieve your dreams if you believe, if you fight for everything. 

Utility Vest Undercover, Jacket Hi-Tec, Trousers YMC, Trainers adidas

“The last two minutes of the Champions League final, Man United scored two and changed the game. I turned to my friend and said, one day I will be on this team, one day I will be playing at Old Trafford.”

So, would you say you believe in destiny? Because I also heard that you told your friends when you were younger that you’d play for Manchester United one day… 

I did! I was walking with a friend of mine who used to play on the same team. It was getting late, we’d just finished playing, and we were walking down the street by the coffee shop where there was a game on TV. It was unbelievable. The last two minutes of the Champions League final, Man United scored two and changed the game. I turned to my friend and said, ‘one day I will be on this team, one day I will be playing at Old Trafford.’ We were so excited to be watching this game.

My friend never forgot that. Years later when I played for United, he reached out to me. He had moved to London and we had lost contact for a few years. But, the first thing he saw me when we met up again was ‘you were right all along, you said that you’d play for Man United, it’s unbelievable.’ He was so happy for me. It was a special moment. 

Where do you get your drive from? Because all of these stories are linked to this unbelievable strength and desire which you have in yourself… 

Nothing was ever easy. I had my brother to follow me for so many years; we didn’t know where to go or what we wanted to do most of the time but I always had this dream to play football. I was so young, my parents never followed me like a lot of parents do to the kids now. They follow their kids, they go to clubs, they speak to agents, they help them on their journey. I was alone. I was doing it all myself, trying to decide by myself what was the best thing to do. 

What would you say is your greatest strength?

My mentality. I always make decisions from my heart. The focus and dedication which I put into everything in my life is the key. Even if you have nothing, if you don’t have a lot of help, you must follow your instincts and trust in God. When I was young I was always thinking, questioning things, asking God to help me and give me the opportunities. One of my biggest strengths, especially when I was playing football with my friends, was my will to win. I’ve always hated to lose. Whenever I was losing, I was always fighting to turn things around and that made me stronger every time. 

Watching you in the MLS, you still seem to have that burning desire to win… 

Yes, of course! Because of that, I am even suspended for the first game of the new season (laughs). Even the last game of the season, we were losing and I didn’t want to lose. It doesn’t matter if there is nothing to play for, there is always the pride in the shirt, you should always play to win, to play for the fans. I wanted to win. So, that’s why I put in so much anger with the referee and I was lucky to only get a yellow card. However, the league decided to punish me further. But, yes, that shows my character. I still love the game. I still want to win. I can’t just relax and play football, there is always that edge. 

On this whole journey, when have you been the happiest? Because you’ve won countless trophies, travelled the world with some great teams and you wore the armband in the final of Portugal’s European Championship triumph. Is there’s a moment that sticks out for you? 

For me, the thing that made me the happiest was the birth of my son. It gave me the stability, it gave me the love, it gave the strength to succeed in every aspect of my life. To see him follow me around the world, to see him talk, play and engage with the game of football, to support me in every game is special. On the pitch, I’ve had a few moments where I’ve felt on top of the world. Especially at United when we won everything in the first couple of years, those moments were unforgettable. Then, with Portugal and the European Championships, it was unbelievable because we all won something for our country. It’s the most important trophy in my career. The feeling was so special, I can say it was the best moment. 

Do you ever go back to Manchester? 

No, but I’m thinking to go very soon to watch a game. Obviously, all of my best memories are from Manchester. I made some great friends there and a lot of people still love me which is unbelievable, they appreciate what I did at the club. I miss a lot of things about Manchester, the people, the city. My son was born there. He’s always asking when are we going back to Manchester to watch himself a game, to see where he was born. He even calls himself a Mancunian! 

Does your son consider himself a Manchester United fan? 

If you ask him; he’ll tell you Sporting, Manchester United, Portugal and Orlando. He loves all the shirts. He has them all – of all the clubs I’ve played for. So, when we’re playing in the garden, he’ll say ‘I like this colour, I want to play in this one today.’ It’s funny. What makes me happy though, is he knows all about Manchester United. He knows about the city. What Manchester means to him; he knows he was born there so he knows he has to go there and have a relationship with the city. He knows his principle teams; Sporting Lisbon, Portugal, Manchester United and now Orlando.

Coat YMC, Shirt Raf Simons, Jeans Levi’s, Trainers adidas

What have you learned since playing in the MLS?

I’ve learned that you can play football anywhere in the world; it’s a special currency. Anywhere where you have two goals and one ball – you have a game and you can enjoy it. In the USA, there is a lot of quality and the intensity is very high. The league is improving a lot, they are trying to get to the highest level, to be the best in the world, and that can happen.

It’s a fantastic country. You have the possibilities to live your life, to visit the beautiful and interesting places across America. You also have the ability to be very professional and have great ambition. It’s great to help the club grow, to achieve their goals and ambitions. That’s my sole focus. To help Orlando to reach the play-offs because anything can happen after that. If you look at the season just gone, no one was really expecting Seattle to win but they did. Once you get into the play-offs you can achieve anything. It’s a beautiful league. I’m very happy and ready to go again.

Vol. 2

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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